The Future of Education: Beyond the Status Quo

This is Part Two of a five-part series.

Part Two: The Future of Education: Transcending the Status Quo: How Did We Get Here? (The hard truth about rote learning & digitization)

The Wicked Problem of Educational Technology

Solving the decades-long problem of accelerating teaching and learning with technology is a wicked problem that matters to me. A wicked problem is characterized by Rittel and Weber (1973) as an undesirable condition that is marked by numerous constraints, is multilateral, intractable, and as yet, unresolved. Wrestling with wicked problems is a lot like wrestling the mythic multi-headed Hydra; every time one of the Hydra’s many heads is removed, several more grow in its place. Reliably enhancing teaching and learning with technology can be like wrestling a digital Hydra — there are too many variables to juggle, too many digital tools to consider, and too much evidence-free propaganda confounding our thinking about effectively integrating educational technologies into teaching and learning.

As I wrote in my earlier post, the average effect of technology on learning has been both meager and unchanged for the past 50 years. If one were to graph this on a scale from one to 10, the effect of digital tools in schools has been alarmingly stuck at an anemic three (Hattie, in Magana, 2017 pp. i). With all of the breathtaking advancements in technology over the last half century, how did we get to this unhappy place?

Unfortunately, the most common ways that digital tools are used in schools are not instructional in nature. Technology tools are predominantly used to automate the numerous non-instructional tasks that teachers perform on a regular basis. Chief among these tasks are creating documents, grading, reporting, budgeting, sending e-mails to communicate with administrators and colleagues, and using the Internet to help plan for instruction. While these tasks are important to the functional business of schooling, they are not directly related to enhancing teaching and learning.

So what can we do about this? Of the many variables which have an effect on student achievement, one critically important variable is clearly within the capacity of educational systems to support, manage, and constantly improve: The quality of instruction in our classrooms. Therein lies an equally critical opportunity to identify instructional strategies that are highly impactful on student achievement, and then enhancing those strategies with modern tools. It makes sense, therefore, that in order to understand how to apply digital tools into classroom practices, we must first understand what constitutes effective teaching and learning practices.

In his seminal book The Art and Science of Teaching, my friend and colleague Dr. Robert Marzano (2007) identified three sequential elements of the teaching and learning experience: 1.) Students interact with new knowledge; 2.) Students practice and deepen new knowledge; and, 3.) Students generate and test hypotheses about new knowledge (see Figure 1.0). A brief overview of each stage is warranted.

When learners are first exposed to new content knowledge, they have to make preliminary sense of that new content knowledge. This stage of learning sequence is what renowned educational researcher John Hattie calls “surface learning,” because when learning new content, students are first exposed to the superficial facts, simple details, and new academic vocabulary that describes that new content information.

This next phase is when students practice and deepen their understanding of new content knowledge and information. In this stage, students build and strengthen the initially tenuous connections between their previously acquired knowledge base and the new content with which they are interacting. Hattie refers to this as “deeper learning,” because during this phase, students enact more rigorous cognitive strategies to help them deepen their understanding of new knowledge. The third phase involves affording students the opportunity to generate and test inferences or claims about the new content knowledge and information in different contexts. This is the most cognitively complex phase of learning, and the most rewarding both in terms of academic achievement and student motivation. Hattie refers to this as a process of “transferring” newly acquired knowledge towards some line of inquiry in a unique context. It is during this transfer stage that students experience the “thrill” of mastering new knowledge.

Sacrificing Depth for Breadth?

In a recent study that sought to categorize instructional behaviors, Marzano and Toth (2014) analyzed data over 2 million teachers’ classroom observations. They found that teachers in the study spent 58% of their classroom time telling students what knowledge was important to learn (surface learning) while 36% of the time students practiced the knowledge they were told. This means that a whopping 94% of instructional time followed a “tell and practice pedagogy,” leaving only 6% to the rigorous and joyful tasks associated with transferring knowledge into meaningful inquiry.

The tell and practice model of teaching and learning has been the dominant pedagogy for most of the 20th Century. Simply overlaying digital technologies onto this pedagogical model has had a trivial impact on student achievement for nearly half that time (Hattie, in Magana, 2017 pp. i).

Stop and let that sink in for a moment.

It is arguable to assert that the low impact of technology on instructional quality and student achievement can be tied to two evidence-based observations: 1.) Digital tools are generally not used to enhance instruction and learning; and, 2.) When digital tools are used, they are employed to simply supplement the tell and practice model of teaching and learning.

Unfortunately, the lack of use combined with the low-level use of technology in education has done little to transform the dominant model of teaching and learning. This is the hard truth about how we have arrived at this unhappy moment in the modern culture of education. So where are we going? Where will supplementing the tell and practice model of education lead us?

Stay tuned for my next article in which I delve into the two possible futures of education.